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Red Wolves begin conference play at W. Kentucky

Published: Thursday, September 29, 2011

Updated: Thursday, September 29, 2011 18:09

Smith

Ashley Helliwell

Ashley Helliwell/Herald Junior quarterback Andre Smith rolls out during practice Tuesday at the ASU practice field. Smith is a converted tight end backing up junior Ryan Aplin. Through four games this year, Smith is 14 for 16 with 152 yards with one passing and one rushing touchdown.

After finishing a four- game non-conference "pre-season", the Red Wolves now begin the tough task of playing nine straight Sun Belt games.

 Conference play begins  Saturday with a road trip to Bowling Green, Ky., to take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

The Red Wolves, coming off a 53-24 win against Central Arkansas, will pit their 2-2 record against a Hilltopper team that has lost its first three games by a total of 104 to 33.

Those losses came against Kentucky, Navy and Division 1-AA Indiana State.

 

Forgetting the Past

In last year's installment of this series, the Red Wolves mounted a fourth quarter comeback against the Hilltoppers, scoring touchdowns on three straight drives to tie the game at 28.

But a botched punt snap sent the game into over time, where the one-win Hilltoppers defeated the Red Wolves 36-35.

However, ASU head coach Hugh Freeze knows the 2011 Red Wolves cannot dwell on that game.

"It was very difficult for the players and very difficult for the staff," Freeze said. "You won't hear me talk about it with our players.

"I do know that we're still dealing with young men and I think it is impossible for college athletes to be at their emotional peak for 12 straight weeks," Freeze continued.

The emotional level of players was one of Freeze's concerns during the UCA game after the Red Wolves only led by nine over the Division 1-AA team at halftime.

However, Freeze feels comfortable about how his team has fared through the first four games of the season.\

 

Very Special Teams

One of the team units that Freeze is confident in is special teams.

Following a six-field-goal game by Brian Davis, ASU is third in the conference when it comes to field goal percentage with a .769 rating.

ASU has made the most field goals though, with 10 out of 13 attempts making it through the uprights.

"I think they're vastly improved from last year. I think they have been very solid," Freeze said, quickly following it up with "Knock on wood."

ASU is in the top three of five special teams categories: kickoff coverage, punting, punt return average, field goals and point after touchdown field goals.

While Freeze knows Davis' performance against the Bears is something to note, he wants the Red Wolves to be able to sustain and finish drives.

"We were 10 for 10 the other night in the red zone, which is 100 percent with points, but we would really like to get six more times than three," Freeze said.

 

Western's Woes

The Hilltoppers are the newest school at the Division 1-A level and are in the middle of their third year of Sun Belt competition.

 The  Hilltoppers are in their second year under head coach Willie Taggert. Through the first 15 games of the Taggert era, the Hilltoppers are 2-13.

"Arkansas State is not going to take any pity on Western Kentucky University," Taggert said in his weekly press conference.

"We're heading in the right direction. Pouting is not going to make it better, running away from it is not going to make it better and giving up hope is not going to make it better."

The biggest threat for WKU is senior running back Bobby Rainey. ASU, who has the third best rush defense in the Sun Belt, will have to stop Rainey, the third best running back in the nation during the 2010 season.

Earning 1,649 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, Rainey was named the Sun Belt's 2010 Offensive Player of the Year.

"He's one of the more talented guys in our conference," Freeze said. "He will run some option routes out of the backfield where he has the option of taking the flat or taking the cut depending on what the defense is doing."

Through three games this season, Rainey has been limited 372 rushing yards and two touchdowns and has rushed for more than 100 yards in 12 of his last 15 games.

 

Aplin and Company

The Hilltoppers defense will have to stop an Arkansas State offense that is averaging 30 points a game and led by junior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who is completing 63.2 percent of his passes this season.

"[Aplin] is the real deal. He's the commander-in-chief of the offense," Taggert said. "He does a really good job of getting rid of the ball. As an offense, they do a good job of staying out of 3rd and long situations."

This season, the Red Wolves have gained over 600 yards of offense in both homes games.

"Offensively, we do a lot of things that give people problems and make them defend the whole field," Freeze said.

I think our staff is working extremely hard to put us in situations that we have success and play to our strengths."

Redshirt freshman running back Frankie Jackson is questionable for Saturday's game after suffering a sprained ankle during the first half of the UCA game.

The sixth meeting between Arkansas State and Western Kentucky will kick off from Smith Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday and can be seen on the Sun Belt Network, ESPN3.com and heard on 107.9 FM.

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